Bosporan Kingdom

From New World Encyclopedia
Panticapaeum and other ancient Greek colonies along the north coast of the Black Sea.

The Bosporan Kingdom, or the Kingdom of the Cimmerian Bosporus, was an ancient state, located in eastern Crimea and the Taman Peninsula on the shores of the Cimmerian Bosporus. It is interesting as the first truly "Hellenistic" state—in the sense of one in which a mixed population adopted the Greek language and civilization. The once thriving cities of the Bosporus have left extensive architectural and sculptural remains, while the kurgans continue to yield spectacular Greco-Sarmatian objects, the best examples of which are now preserved in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. These include gold work, vases imported from Athens, coarse terracottas, textile fragments, and specimens of carpentry and marquetry.

The kingdom can be traced from the third century B.C.E. until it was conquered by the Romans in the early first century C.E. Under Rome, it continued to enjoy a high degree of autonomy as a client-state. In the late fourth century, it became part of the Hunnic Empire until this area was reclaimed by the Byzantine Empire. It is now divided between the Ukraine and Russia. This kingdom did not collapse or implode, but eventually fell to the Huns due to their superior military strength. For over six centuries, the Bosporan kingdom was a vibrant, productive and peaceful society that thrived on commerce and trade. Renowned for its multi-cultural composition, too, survival over this lengthy period as a prosperous trading polity challenges the contention that multiculturalism is a chimera.

Early Greek colonies

The whole district was dotted with Greek cities: On the west side, Panticapaeum (Kerch), the chief of all, often itself called Bosporus, Nymphaeum and Myrmekion; on the east Phanagoria (the second capital), Cepoi, Germonassa, Portus Sindicus, Gorgippia. These Greek colonies were mostly settled by Milesians, Panticapaeum in the seventh or early in the sixth century B.C.E., but Phanagoria (c. 540 B.C.E.) was a colony of Teos, and Nymphaeum had some connection with Athens—at least it appears to have been a member of the Delian League.

Kings of Cimmerian Bosporus

According to Diodorus Siculus (xii. 31) the locality was governed from 480 B.C.E. to 438 B.C.E. by a line called the Archaeanactidae, probably a ruling family, who gave place to a tyrant Spartocus (438 B.C.E.-431 B.C.E.), apparently a Thracian.[1] He founded a dynasty which seems to have endured until c. 110 B.C.E. The Spartocids have left many inscriptions which indicate that the earlier members of the house ruled as archons of the Greek cities and kings of various native tribes, notably the Sindi of the island district and other branches of the Maeotae. Unfortunately, the texts, inscriptions and coins do not supply sufficient material for a complete list of these monarchs.

Bosporan Phiale (top view), 4th century B.C.E.

Satyrus (431 B.C.E.-387 B.C.E.), the successor of Spartocus, established his rule over the whole district, adding Nymphaeum to his dominions and laying siege to Theodosia, which was a serious commercial rival because of its ice-free port and proximity to the grain fields of eastern Crimea. It was reserved for his son Leucon (387 B.C.E.-347 B.C.E.) to take this city. He was succeeded by his two sons conjointly, Spartocus II, and Paerisades; the former died in 342 and his brother reigned alone until 310. Then followed a civil war in which Eumelus (310 B.C.E.-283 B.C.E.) was successful.

His successor was Spartocus III (303 B.C.E.-283 B.C.E.) and after him Paerisades II. Succeeding princes repeated the family names, but they cannot be assigned any certain order. It is known only that the last of them, Paerisades V, unable to make headway against the power of the natives, in 108 B.C.E. called in the help of Diophantus, general of Mithridates the Great of Pontus, promising to hand over his kingdom to that prince. He was slain by a Scythian named Saumacus who led a rebellion against him.

The house of Spartocus was well known as a line of enlightened and wise princes; although Greek opinion could not deny that they were, strictly speaking, tyrants, they are always described as dynasts.[2] They maintained close relations with Athens, their best customers for the Bosporan grain export, of which Leucon I set the staple at Theodosia, where the Attic ships were allowed special privileges. The Attic orators make numerous references to this. In return the Athenians granted him Athenian citizenship and set up decrees in honor of him and his sons. Bury, et al refer to a "hostile strain" in Greek references to the Bosporans but remarks that they were "worth heaping with honors as suppliers of grain."[2] There appear to have been several women rulers and co-rulers, including Reigning Queen Dynamis (8 B.C.E.-7.8C.E.), Co-Reigning Queen Kamasayre Philoteknos (215-175/76) and a legendary Queen Amage (fourth century B.C.E.).[3]

Mithridates entrusted the Bosporus Cimmerius to his son Machares, who, however, deserted to the Romans. But even when driven out of his own kingdom by Pompey, Mithridates was strong enough to regain the Cimmerian Bosporus, and Machares slew himself. Subsequently the Bosporans again rose in revolt under Pharnaces, another of the old king's sons. After the death of Mithridates (63 B.C.E.), this Pharnaces (63 B.C.E.-47 B.C.E.) made his submission to Pompey, then tried to regain his dominion during the civil war, but was defeated by Caesar at Zela and later killed by a former governor of his. A pretender, Asander married his daughter Dynamis, and in spite of Roman nominees ruled as archon, and later as king, until 17 B.C.E. After his death, Dynamis was compelled to marry a Roman usurper called Scribonius, but the Romans under Agrippa interfered and set Polemon I of Pontus (16 B.C.E.-8 B.C.E.) in his place. Dynamis died in 14 B.C.E. and Polemon ruled until 8 B.C.E. After Polemon's death, Tiberius Julius Aspurgus, son of Dynamis and Asander, succeeded Polemon.

Ruins of Panticapaeum, modern Kerch, the capital of the Bosporan Kingdom.

Tiberius Julius Aspurgus (8 B.C.E.-38), founded a line of kings which endured with certain interruptions until 341. These kings, mostly bore Pontic and Thracian names such of Kotys, Rhescuporis and Rhoemetalces. The kings also bore natives names such as Sauromates, Eupator, Ininthimeus, Pharsanzes, Synges, Terianes, Theothorses and Rhadamsades. The Bosporan Kings assumed the Roman name Tiberius Julius from an earlier king Tiberius Julius Aspurgus. Aspurgus assumed the name Tiberius Julius, because he enjoyed the patronage of the first two Roman Emperors Augustus and Tiberius. Then their third name was either a Pontic or Thracian or local name. From Aspurgus, they were descendants of King Mithridates VI of Pontus. From the Pontic era (starting from 297 B.C.E.) introduced by Mithridates, the kings regularly placing dates upon their coins and inscriptions. The kings struck coinage throughout the kingdom period, which included gold staters bearing portraits of the respective Roman Emperors. However, this coinage increasing became debased in the third century. Hence, their names and dates are known fairly well, though scarcely any events of their reigns are recorded. Their kingdom covered the eastern half of Crimea and the Taman peninsula, and extended along the east coast of the Maeotian marshes to Tanais at the mouth of the Don, a great market for trade with the interior. However, while tributary to Rome, there is little evidence of a permanent Roman military presence and the kingdom "remained remarkably isolated, both geographically and strategically."[4]

They carried on a perpetual war with the native tribes, and in this were supported by their Roman suzerains, who even lent the assistance of garrison and fleet. At times rival kings of some other races arose and probably produced some disorganization. At one of these periods (255) the Goths and Borani were able to seize Bosporan shipping and raid the shores of Anatolia. With the last coin of the last Rhescuporis, in 341, materials for a connected history of the Bosporus Cimmerius come to an end. The kingdom probably succumbed to the Huns, who defeated the nearby Alans in 375/376 and moved rapidly westwards bringing destruction in their wake. Yet, it survived and was relatively stable for several centuries.

Byzantine Cimmerian Bosporus

A few centuries after the Hunnic invasion, the Bosporan cities seem to have enjoyed a revival, under Byzantine protection. From time to time Byzantine officers built fortresses and exercised authority at Bosporus, which constituted an archbishopric. They also held Ta Matarcha on the eastern side of the strait, a town which in the tenth and eleventh centuries became the seat of the Russian principality of Tmutarakhan, which in turn gave place to Tatar domination.

With the Diaspora, and thanks to the nearby Khazar state, a Jewish element had been added to the population, and under its influence were developed in all the cities of the kingdom, especially Tanais, societies of "worshipers of the highest God," apparently professing a monotheism without being distinctively Jewish or Christian. Levinskaya speculates that some of the people who converted to Christianity in this region in the fourth century may have belonged to the "thiasoi of the Most High God."[5]

Numismatics of the Bosporan Kingdom

Although considered somewhat exotic prior to the demise of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, Bosporan coins are now plentiful on the international coin markets, hinting at the vast quantities once produced. Several large series were produced by Bosporan cities from the fifth century B.C.E., particularly in Panticapaeum (modern Kerch). The gold staters of Panticapaeum bearing Pan's head and a griffin are specially remarkable for their weight and fine workmanship. There are also coins with the names of the later Spartocids and a singularly complete series of dated solidi issued by the later or Achaemenian dynasty. In them may be noticed the swift degeneration of the gold solidus through silver and potin to bronze.


Miller, et al describe the Bosporan Kingdom as a "remarkable political formation" and comment that it has not attracted the scholarly attention it merits.[6] Erskine says that the Kingdom was culturally heterogeneous but that its citizens developed their "identities in a dialogue that acknowledges a mixed bag of cultural traditions" with an emphasis on inclusion.[7] The cities of the kingdom have tended to be regarded as outposts of Hellenism in a hostile, uncivilized region but the multi-cultural composition of the empire suggests a different story. Excavations suggest a combination of Greek and local elements. The citizens appear to have lived in a culturally diverse society with free mixing and mingling and cross-fertilization.[8] While relatively little is known about how the Bosporan Kingdom was governed, evidence does exist of a socially stratified society. However, since it was always fundamentally an alliance of city states, some degree of voluntary recognition of the king's authority can be surmised. The king may have ensured a decent living standard in return for civil harmony. There is no evidence of rebellions. The king adjusted tax on grain to encourage its sale and for the much of the kingdom's history it fed the Greek states. Levinskaya says that over time the polis system of self-governing cities were gradually incorporated into a "territorial tyranny which developed into a monarchy of the Hellenistic type."[9]

What can be said with some confidence is that despite the multicultural composition of this kingdom, it remained stable for a considerable period of time. It eventually fell to huge movements of population, as did the much larger Roman Empire but unlike the Romans it did not implode from within. There is no evidence of the type of internal disunity and moral decline that characterized Rome as Attila the Hun make inroads into the empire. Contrary to the opinion of some, including Samuel P Huntington, that multicultural societies can not thrive, the Bosporan Kingdom did.[10]


  1. Bury et al. (1994), 490.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Bury et al (1994), 479.
  3. Guide to Women Leaders, Women in Power BCE 500- CE 1. Retrieved November 23, 2008.
  4. Millar, Cotton, and Rogers (2004), 240.
  5. Levinskaya (1996), 105.
  6. Millar, Cotton, and Rogers (2004), 239.
  7. Erskine (2005), 361.
  8. Erskine (2005), 362.
  9. Levinskaya (1996), 107.
  10. Samuel Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1996, ISBN 9780684811642), 306.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Bury, J.B., Stanley Arthur Cook, F.E. Adcock, M.P. Charlesworth, Norman Hepburn Baynes, and Charles Theodore Seltman. The Cambridge Ancient History. Volume VI, The Fourth Century B.C.E. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1994. ISBN 978-0521233484
  • Champlin, Edward, Andrew William Lintott, and Alan K. Bowman. The Cambridge Ancient History. Vol. 10, The Augustan Empire, 43 B.C.E.-A.D. 69. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996. ISBN 978-0521264303
  • Erskine, Andrew. A Companion to the Hellenistic World. Blackwell Companions to the Ancient World. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2005. ISBN 978-1405132787
  • Frolova, Nina A., and Stanley Ireland. The Coinage of the Bosporan Kingdom: From the First Century B.C.E. to the Middle of the First Century AD. Oxford, UK: Hadrian Books, 2002. ISBN 978-1841713229
  • Levinskaya, I.A. The Book of Acts in its Diaspora Setting. The book of Acts in its first century setting, v.5. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1996. ISBN 978-0802824370
  • Millar, Fergus, Hannah Cotton, and Guy MacLean Rogers. Rome, the Greek world, and the East. 2, Government, Society, and Culture in the Roman Empire. Studies in the history of Greece and Rome. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2004. ISBN 978-0807828526
  • Magocsi, Paul R. A History of Ukraine. Toronto, CA: University of Toronto Press, 1996. ISBN 978-0802008305
  • This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.

External links

All links retrieved November 20, 2023.


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